Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Environment and self organisation

As you’ll have gathered, I’ve been pre-occupied recently with self organisation, self regulation and learning. Thus two phrases leapt out at me when my Planet project colleague, Yishay Mor, blogged about Europlop 2008.
“Funny thing, how social scientists will stand before a hall full of neatly packed passive listeners and preach about collaborative constructivist learning, while the computer scientists just do it.”

“EuroPLoP 2008 also leaves ample space and time for the real work of conferencing, the stuff that can’t be captured in predefined structure, because it emerges out of the discussions at the time and place.”

For Yishay, then, working in a research context, the really valuable process is self organisation rather than regulation (whether by self or others). I note, though, that for the outcomes of self organisation to be useful research ideas the environment has to be structured in an appropriate way – which implies a fair degree of control or regulation of the environment and an understanding of the types of environment that encourage effective emergent behaviours - or, in memetic terms, a knowledge of the types of environment that will select useful behaviours. So, for the conference to be a success, the environment is controlled although the entities within it are not. Perhaps, though, even here the environment is less controlled than at a conventional conference? Is deliberate absence of control, in itself, a form of control?

I’m not entirely convinced by the memetic, selection, interpretation. It is not clear to me why a relatively uncontrolled environment should select useful research behaviours. It might select all sorts of other things (eg. a lot of alcohol addiction, if Yishay’s emphasis on beer is to be believed). There is evidently a much more complex relationship between environment, interactions between conference delegates, and attributes of the delegates than a simple selection model would suggest. Perhaps, an uncontrolled environment, a community of research practitioners (ie. the interactions) and delegates with “academic” attributes are all necessary conditions. If these conditions are independent, then one would say that selection of the right sort of delegates, and community of practice, had happened before the conference started: only those who meet the necessary conditions are in jobs that will pay for their attendance – they have been ruthlessly selected through educational and career structures. However, it also seems entirely likely that the conditions are not totally independent - that the environment, community and delegates help bootstrap each other up to the useful research behaviours. This, after all, is presumably why we encourage research students to attend conferences.

In a previous post, I suggested that for effective learners, the attractors, or stable states, are educationally desirable behaviours. It seems to me that there might be two ways we could ensure this. The first is by the environment ruthlessly selecting those who have these behaviours – this approach might be said to characterise HE prior to the mid 1960s and the beginning of a widening participation agenda. The second is by helping learners to develop strategies for finding these states, and for avoiding other, equally stable but educationally undesirable, states (for example by turning them into repellers). If my analysis of Yishay’s conference experience is near the mark, then a self organisation model of learning needs to understand, not only the necessary environments and communities for learning, but also the dependencies of environment, community and student attributes that will help students become learners.

1 comment:

Christine Irving said...

A couple of things regarding community of practice and environment struct me as I read this. First the quote “Funny thing, how social scientists will stand before a hall full of neatly packed passive listeners and preach about collaborative constructivist learning, while the computer scientists just do it.” I used to work in FE and they said a similar thing about HE - HE discusses it at length whilst FE just gets on and does it.

Secondly in the field I work in 'information literacy' http://www.gcal.ac.uk/ils/index.html there is a growing recognition that a person's view and use of information literacy is affected by their experience and the environment / field they work in. This was recently visually represented to me in an NHS IL workshop by a cameleon. This visual image has stayed with me and I think represents what it is be a lifelong learner and worker in today's environment.